Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Andreas Fincke {*}

Small - but Influential

Claim and Reality of Organizations Critical of the Church


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2011, P. 77-82
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Organizations of free-thinkers, humanists and atheists were able to increase only slightly the number of their members in the last ten years. But for this reason atheism organized in associations is not a negligible quantity. Quite different matters have been positioned very cleverly in society.


The scene of free-thinker organizations in Germany is confusing and even for insiders not easy to grasp. There are e.g. a lot of regional initiatives and small circles, but also relatively influential organizations such as the "Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands" (German Humanist Association) and the "Giordano Bruno Stiftung". There are friendly relations and dual memberships beyond the organizational boundaries, but also animosity and obvious strategic differences.

In the present time, the scene is stimulated by the massive processes of secularization and alienation from the church. With interest one takes note of the fact that the group of those without religious affiliation represents the fastest growing ideological orientation in Germany. Since also allegations of child abuse and other occurences damage the reputation of the churches, one might expect that the free-thinker and secular organizations enjoy a large clientele. But this is not the case. In the last ten years, all these organizations were able to increase only insignificantly the number of their members.



Nationwide, it is still at about 15,000 to at most 20,000. Thus, the atheism organised in associations seems to remain a negligible quantity. However, things are not that simple. For despite the modest number of members, the various atheist, freethinking and humanist organizations succeed in cleverly bringing their requests into society. They are small - but influential.


"Freethinking Religious Instruction" in Berlin

This becomes apparent by the religious education in Berlin. In the federal capital, religious instruction is not a regular school subject but only a voluntary offer of the churches and religious communities. Moreover, in Berlin there is - almost unique in Germany -, a teaching subject competing with religious instruction. From the roots of the Free Thought Movement there emerged the worldview education of the Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands (HVD), i.e. the school subject "humanist life skills". One could, even if that sounds strange, apostrophise this subject as a "freethinking religious instruction". This teaching subject has a long tradition in Berlin. In 1918 it was for the first time introduced as an alternative to religious education. After a checkered history with temporary prohibitions, in the mid-eighties of the 20th century the free thinkers were able to establish the teaching subject again in what was then West Berlin. But until 1989, the "humanist life skills" led a shadowy existence with at best 1,000 participants per school year. Only after the reunification the school subject gained increasingly in importance.

The latest figures for the current school year are now available. Currently, 15.56 percent of the students (49,813) participate in the "humanist life skills" lessons. It's worth a comparison: 25.12 percent (80 393) of children in Berlin attended the Protestant religious education and 7.82 percent (25 021) the Catholic RE. All in all, only every second student attends the voluntary RE or life skills lessons. While the two large churches note a small decrease in their number of participants, the HVD registers a slight increase.

This increase is all the more considerable when you consider that, due to demographic development, the absolute number of students is declining. It is little surprising that in the eastern districts the life skills lessons are attended at a disproportionately higher rate. Number one is the district of Pankow with a participation rate of 28.14 percent. In this comparatively bourgeois district, the Catholic religious instruction is attended by less than 5 percent of the students. This is not the place to examine more in detail the motivation of parents to send their children to life skills instruction. However, a certain aloofness towards the churches and their religious education can hardly be denied. The numbers are amazing, especially when one recalls that the HVD in Berlin has only about 5000 members. With its worldview education alone, it reaches a multiple of its membership base.

It is obvious that one does not rest on one's laurels. The HVD therefore has been trying for several years to establish its school subject in other Länder. Already in 2005 a lawsuit in this matter before the Brandenburg Constitutional Court was successful. From 2007 on, the HVD has been introducing gradually the subject in this federal state. Currently, the number of participants is still modest, but it is unambiguously growing. One prepares the introduction of the teaching subject also in North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Lower Saxony. So it's only a matter of time until the church-based religious education nationwide gets new competition.

The HVD was founded in 1993 as an umbrella organization of secular organizations. Though it emerged from several free-thinker associations (as e.g. the West Berlin free-thinkers) it has meanwhile in the central issues a great distance to traditional free-thinker positions. For free-thinkers traditionally demand a definite separation of church and state, the abolition of religious education and the collection of church rate by the tax offices, the disbanding of the faculties of theology, an end to the pastoral care in the army, and many other things.

The HVD writes admittedly some of these claims in its political programme, however, on the way there it claims all these privileges "for the time being" for itself. The key argument is equal treatment of religious and ideological communities under Article 4 paragraph 1 of the Basic Law, particularly Article 140 of the Basic Law in conjunction with Article 137 paragraph 7 Weimar Constitution. This strategic realignment proves to be a very clever step of the HVD. It is thus no longer an atheistic / free-thinker organization that positions itself via "opposition"; the association sees itself rather as an organization with a humanistic world view, and with own values and goals. In this context, the key word "humanistic" must not be understood in the strict sense of a classical humanism, but rather as humanistic-worldly.



Due to this repositioning, the HVD has achieved a great deal in the nearly 20 years of its existence. In Berlin for instance it maintains numerous health and social projects, as e.g. residential care homes, several hospices, facilities for pregnancy conflict counselling. In addition, the association is provider of 24 day care centers and family centers in the city. In Stuttgart's local politics, there is currently a heated debate about a hospice, which the local HVD wants to open. The fact that the HVD facilities meet the quality standards became obvious in the summer of 2010. The cross-cultural hospice of the Berlin HVD was honored as a second national winner in the integration competition of the foundation "Citizens for Citizens".


Award for Cross-cultural Hospice

The HVD has developed its own living will. In it the requests and goals of treatment for critical or near-death situations are documented. The association supports the filling in and deposit of this declaration of intent. It is said that the HVD wins comparatively many members through this commitment. The work operates under the attractive name "Federal Central Office Living Will". One succeeded also in securing the lucrative homepage "".

In the HVD also the Jugendweihe [ceremony in which teenagers are given adult social status] has a certain tradition; here it is called youth celebration. With about 10,000 youth celebrations per year, mostly in Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, the HVD is not the largest provider but one of the ideologically ambitious ones. An albeit modest youth celebration tradition meanwhile exists also in the old federal states (for example, in Dortmund, Wuppertal, Nürnberg, Hannover). However, the efforts as regards other rituals, as e.g. "Namensweihe" and the celebration of the secular marriage are far less successful.

In recent years, the HVD has increased its efforts to establish own schools. In 2008 in Fürth a privately maintained primary school was opened as a Weltanschauung school under Article 7 paragraph 5 of the Basic Law. In Bremen, there are currently intense legal disputes over the founding of such a school. The HVD will continue its efforts to establish schools. It is said that already plans are afoot to build own grammar schools.



The adult education work of the HVD has in recent years also clearly gained in significance. In addition to an institute for the training of life skills teachers, already in summer 1997 the first Humanist Academy as a study and education center was opened in Berlin. The task of the academy, it was said then, was to counter the "discrimination against non-denominational citizens in the education sector", and it should be upgraded as a counterpart to the religious academies. It was followed in 2005 by such a Humanistic Academy in Bavaria, Lower Saxony in 2008 and 2009 in Thuringia. Certainly, these academies can not yet be compared with church institutions, which have their own convention centers and overnight accommodation, but it's a start.


Actions Critical of Religion of "Giordano Bruno Foundation"

The Humanistische Akademie Deutschland, which was founded in 2006, operates meanwhile nationwide. Since the beginning of this year, it is an "approved beneficiary" of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. This formula stands for the admission of the academy in the circle of the official partners of the Federal Agency and for a significant enhancement of its status. The HVD federal academy works thus on an equal footing with many Protestant and Catholic academies. It organizes numerous meetings and events, also in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and other academies.

In this context, the scientific work of cultural scientist and Academy Director Horst Groschopp is particularly noteworthy. He has been issuing for years a plethora of publications, with which he wants to substantiate a modern humanism in theory. The texts are at a high scientific level. On behalf of the Humanist Academy Germany, since 2010 Groschopp has been editing his own publication series in Alibri Publishing House (Aschaffenburg). Numerous texts and contributions to the discussion on humanism can also be found on the Internet, especially since in autumn 2010 the online magazine "humanismus aktuell" has started (see

Also the Giordano Bruno Stiftung (GBS), founded in 2004 in the Hunsrück, is amazingly active. It wants to develop "a viable secular alternative" to existing religions, and to help that this is "generally accepted in society." In a self-representation it says that one understands one's own position as "naturalistic" in the sense that "neither gods nor ghosts or goblins or demons interfere with the laws of nature". Within a short time, the "think tank for humanism and enlightenment" ( self-portrayal ) has cleverly positioned itself, and was able to gain via media considerable influence. Many actions critical of religion were here devised - partly with coarse polemics, as e.g. "Do you still believe or are you already thinking?" or the bizarre idea of "rededication" of the holiday "Ascension of Christ" into a "Day of Evolution". The "Critical Islam Conference" and the Islam-critical action "We have renounced our faith!" are also supported by the "Giordano Bruno Foundation."

What is conspicuous is a certain double strategy of the foundation. One appeals to the general public by a polemical atheism and effect-seeking absurdities, whereas in the academic context one adorns oneself with trustworthy names. For quite some time several prominent figures, as e.g. Hans Albert, Norbert Hoerster, Ulrich Kutschera and Wolf Singer belong to the advisory board of the foundation. Some time ago, Ingrid Matthäus-Maier, for many years vice-chairman of the SPD parliamentary party also declared her cooperation.

Via this contact, the creation of a "secular study group" in the SPD was launched by the GBS; an action that failed for the time being (see HK, January 2011, 11 et seq.). GBS was also in the background during Carsten Frerk's work on his latest book "Violettbuch Kirchenfinanzen Wie der Staat die Kirchen finanziert" [Violet Book Church Finance - How the state finances the churches] and during the accompanying press campaign.

By the way, towards Frerk's commitment regarding the cancellation of all public funds for the churches the HVD takes a critical stance. In a statement it admittedly also argues for the cancellation of public funds, which are paid on the basis of the Principal Decree of the Imperial Deputation of 1803. However, one calls expressly for the continuance of the public funds "which are given to the religious and non-religious communities as executive organs of social welfare functions or educational measures, because these payments are justified by the present commitment of these organizations. It is wrong to demand here a reduction or even the cancellation." In other words, in this question, there are significant differences between the GBS and the HVD. The latter has far receded from the old freethinker positions and now emphatically focuses on the argument of equal treatment of religion and Weltanschauung. The political conditions and the social climate in Germany provide a favorable framework for it.


A Keen Internet Commitment

On the Internet, too, the humanistic-atheistic organizations are active. Three particularly influential pages have to be mentioned. Daily updated information of the Humanist Press Service (hpd) you find under This portal presents progressive, humanistic and freethinking positions, so that "politics and media pay more attention to them."



The hpd wants to "give a voice" to non-religious people. In addition, one sees oneself as a "platform for the wide range of secular aspirations in the German-speaking countries." This press service went online in August 2006. At that time, it was initiated and founded by the GBS and the HVD. After substantive differences, in July 2009 the HVD ended its cooperation in the supporting association. At present, seven partly smaller, secular organizations (Alibri Publishing House, Federation of Spiritual Freedom Augsburg, Federation of Spiritual Freedom Munich, German Society for Dying With Dignity, Jugendweihe Germany, etc.) continue to take part in the project.

Somewhat less influential, but not to be underestimated is "". Since February 2010 you can find here a privately run and commercially-working "magazine for young humanists." This information portal is conceived as a youth page and tries to call the daily dominance and uncritical acceptance of religious ideas into question (...) by describing secular, non-religious or enlightened alternatives." The portal was founded by persons associated with GBS and HVD, but it is not an official activity.

Under "" you find the portal of the "Research Group Ideologies in Germany" (Fowid, in German). It, too, is a project of the Giordano Bruno Foundation. Since 2005 an astonishing wealth of data and texts is compiled: themes such as joining the church or seceding from the church, voter behavior, religious issues, church taxes, euthanasia, and many other things. It is conspicuous that the focus is on information that in the broad sense is critical of the churches and of religion. For the next few months one has announced additional data sheets on issues of public funds for the churches. It is likely that one, in view of the occasion, will deal in June with the Protestant Church Congress in Dresden and critically assess the funds provided by the city and the Land. At the latest at this topic, you realize that Carsten Frerk, author of the book on church finances mentioned above, is managing editor at Fowid.


Advocate of the Non-denominational Citizens?

Fowid has managed to establish itself as an information portal for government agencies and journalists. The daily access figures are surprisingly high, the material is usually reviewed well and attractively. However, if you look closely, you will notice that the portals provide only information that is unpleasant for the churches. You will look for figures about the membership development of the secular organizations in vain, whereas figures about leaving the Church are found in abundance. The three portals are not independent journalism, but initiatives led by group interests.

As described above, there are disparate positions in the scene. Some want to engage themselves in atheism and criticism of the church, in order to undermine the plausibility of a religious interpretation of the world. Others want to take everyday irreligiosity up. They have said goodbye to criticism of the church and see it as their real task to distinguish themselves as advocates of non-denominational people. This is a bold request, because you do not know what the non-denominational persons think or believe. But just because this target group is diffuse, it will hardly be able to defend against attempts of non-denominational associations to monopolize it.

It is undoubtedly observed rightly, the polemical and aggressive atheism is media-attractive, but it woos no one, and inspires no one to cooperate. In other words, the aggressive atheism does not give warmth to people and does not help in life. Atheism or humanism (inspired by freethinking) is good as an alternative to churches and religious communities only if it is helpful in shaping and mastering life - namely at turning points such as birth ("Namensweihe"), adolescence ("Jugendweihe"), marriages, burials, bereavement, ethical issues at the end of life (such as living wills).


A New Humanism and Secular Ethics

That's why there are in the field of freethinking or humanistic movements more and more efforts to establish a new humanism, and secular ethics. By developing new forms of humanistic social work and by professionally designing it, so the expectation, one is able to give many unchurched people a home, and to become a serious competitor for the churches. In a special way, the HVD has devoted itself to this task.

Horst Groschopp therefore describes the HVD-humanism no longer as an expression of the non-denominational status, he rather claims for humanism the character of a denomination. It is obvious that this is controversial in the scene, because traditional atheist movements just wanted to get rid of everything "denominational." But Groschopp accentuates differently. "To speak the truth means to profess one's faith (...) A Weltanschauung community (Humanist Association) that wants to meet the requirements of the Basic Law and to be equated with the religious communities is impossible without professing its faith in humanism. Here it is secondary whether this asseveration of one's certainty, which has to be voiced in public, is named 'denomination'. But when Christian religions in Germany are denominationally organized and with 'limping separation' of church and state, the HVD cannot remain indifferent towards this state of affairs - for the very reason that the laws on religion or belief are determined by it."



Notwithstanding of such repositioning, the problem of few members remains for the secular associations. If the impression is not misleading, one has come to terms with it. In a time when the churches, trade unions and political parties massively lose members, it is difficult to bind new club members. Also for this reason the GBS is organized as a "think tank", as a relatively non-binding forum. The activities on the Internet show likewise that one admittedly takes part but does not tie oneself down.

Yet it is striking that the association-based atheism rather finds members in those regions of Germany where the churches are comparatively strong, and has there less members where also the churches have few. For example, there are only marginal forces in East Germany (except Berlin). The modest number of members of secular associations in Germany is not necessarily good news for the churches. On closer examination it is also a reflection of increasing irrelevance of church and religion. People decreasingly chafe at church and religion and see little reason to take dedicatedly position against it.

Here we find the real problem of the current Konfessionslosigkeit [i.e. the fact that more and more people prefer to belong to no denomination, resp. church], which dispenses with any question of God. In the life horizon of many people God as an option does no longer exist. All questions of life are discussed with a pragmatism that is only oriented towards this world. That's why it is increasingly difficult for the churches to find starting-points for a conversation. It is all the more surprising that the two mainstream churches pay so little attention to the study of Konfessionslosigkeit. Though it's meanwhile the done thing to express concern at any occasion which may occur, but real commitment is not visible. An (ecumenical?) research center [for: Arbeitsstelle] to investigate the motivation for Konfessionslosigkeit would be overdue. For instance, you have to find out by which language you can reach these people and how you can anew 'convey the foundations' [for: elementarisieren] of the mystery of faith in a religiously speechless time. The organized associations of Non-Religious and critics of the church have realized much more keenly than the churches that they must woo this group.


    {*} The doctor of theology and Protestant pastor Andreas Fincke (born in 1959) was from 1992 to 2007 scientific consultant at the Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW), then theological consultant for basic issues in the consistory of EKBO, and from 2008 to 2010 personal adviser to the Berlin Senator for Education, Science and Research. Numerous publications about religion and world-view questions.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'